An Introduction to Ayurveda

Ayurveda is the traditional, ancient Indian system of health science. Its name literally means, "life knowledge." The Ayurvedic method of holistic healthcare emphasizes balancing the body, mind, and spirit to treat and prevent disease. This 5,000-year-old practice focuses on harmonizing the body with nature through diet, herbal remedies, yoga and meditation, exercise, lifestyle, and body cleansing. It is considered the sister science of yoga.

History of Ayurveda

Understood to be the oldest and most holistic medical system in the world, Ayurveda was developed around 3,000 BCE. The wisdom of this healing method was passed down through ancient Indian spiritual texts, called the "Vedas." There are four major Vedas, each of which describes, in some parts, the principles of health, disease, and treatment. One of these texts, the "Rig Veda" (also known as "Rik Veda" or "Rigveda"), is one of the oldest known books of any Indo-European language.

The Rig Veda contains philosophical verses on the nature of existence, as well as information on the three basic human constitutions (see "The Doshas" below). It discusses the use of herbs to heal the mind and body, and to keep oneself young. Another Veda, the "Atharva Veda," contains information on everything from internal medicine and surgery, to infertility and psychiatry. The "physicians" at the time of the Vedas were "rishis" — sages or seers, holy people — who viewed health as an overall integration between mind, body, and spirit.

Knowledge of Ayurveda spread from India, influencing other ancient systems, including Chinese medicine and the ancient Greek medicine practiced by Hippocrates. Because of its influence, Ayurveda is known as the "Mother of all healing."

In the 1970s, Ayurvedic teachers from India began traveling to the United States and Europe, sharing their teachings of holistic health. Today, there are Ayurvedic colleges all over the world.

The Doshas

At the heart of Ayurveda is the principle of "doshas," which are the metabolic types or bodily humors that make up a person’s constitution. The doshas are the essential forces behind an individual’s physical, mental, and emotional makeup. There are three doshas, "Vata," "Pitta," and "Kapha."

According to Ayurveda, everything in the world is composed of five elements: Earth, air, fire, water, and space. These elements combine to form the doshas. Everyone has his or her own particular balance of these elements — everyone has a unique dosha. When your dosha becomes imbalanced, the natural flow of "prana" (Sanskrit for "life force energy") becomes disrupted. This disruption causes a build-up of toxic waste in the body, mind, and spirit, which creates disease.

To truly determine your dosha, it’s best to visit an Ayurvedic practitioner or physician. However, learning some general characteristics can point you in the right direction. Read on for basic information about each dosha. Also, check out iSport’s guide, How to Determine Your Dosha, to get a general sense of your own constitution! Note that it’s very common to have a combination of two doshas, such as Vata-Pitta, Pitta-Kapha, or Vata-Kapha. Equal balance across all three doshas is very rare, though it does occur.

Vata

The Vata dosha is a combination of air and space. In general, Vata people are creative, active, and changeable. They’re the ones who are always on the go! They may take on many different activities, but they tire easily and require much sleep. They are typically slim, angular, and long-limbed, with dry skin. They may sometimes forget to eat. Vata people are "idea people," coming up with many imaginative, unique solutions to problems. However, they may lack the follow-through to successfully realize all of their ventures. A Vata imbalance can result in excess nervous energy, fear, mental confusion, and anxiety. The physical results are gas, constipation, poor circulation, and insomnia.

Pitta

The Pitta dosha is a combination of fire and water. Pitta people are competitive, driven, and perfectionists, traits that can be desired qualities in a teammate! However, they can also become overly aggressive, jealous, and critical. They usually have a medium build with well-defined muscles, and strong, warm hands. They also have hearty, dependable appetites. Because of the fire quality in this dosha, Pitta people tend to have higher body temperatures, and they are very sensitive to direct sunlight and heat. Excessive Pitta can cause anger and overblown tempers. The physical results of Pitta imbalance are ulcers, indigestion, and skin irritations, such as cold sores or acne.

Kapha

The Kapha dosha is a combination of water and earth. Overall, Kapha people are calm, kind, and loving. They’re the ones who are always baking cookies or offering a warm hug. However, their patient natures can also lead to laziness and over-attachment. Though they may learn and move slowly, they have excellent memories and follow-through. Kapha people tend to be big-boned and amply built, with large, soft eyes and cool hands. They love to eat, but they can go for long periods between meals. Imbalances in Kapha can cause withdrawal, depression, and reclusive tendencies. Physically, this can lead to weight gain, lethargy, and excess mucus — resulting in coughs, sinus infections, and other congestion-related disorders.

An Ayurvedic Lifestyle

Dosha imbalances are often the result of poor diet and unhealthy lifestyle habits. Ayurveda seeks to restore equanimity by treating the whole person, not just the symptom of the imbalance. A typical Ayurvedic lifestyle plan includes:

Diet

Recommendations are based on each person’s individual temperament and the season. Certain foods will balance or create imbalance. Fresh vegetables, whole grains, and certain legumes, nuts, and dairy products can provide healthy stabilization for each dosha. In general, though, the recommendations to prevent imbalances for each dosha are:

  • Vata: Limit cold, crunchy, and salty foods and carbonated and caffeinated drinks.
  • Pitta: Limit spicy, fried, and meaty foods and excessive alcohol.
  • Kapha: Limit creamy, sweet, and overly heavy foods and drinks.

Exercise

Regular exercise is vital for overall health and well-being. In Ayurveda, the type, intensity, and amount of physical activity required are determined on an individual basis.

Yoga & Meditation

Calming the mind and learning to listen to one’s body are essential techniques for becoming more in tune with nature. Practicing yoga and meditation helps all doshas become more balanced.

Cleansing

Internal cleansing is often done through fasting and diets, though some practitioners also include enemas. External cleansing is done on a daily basis, typically using oils, a natural-bristle body brush, and tepid water.

Massage

Massage and self-massage are not just luxuries in Ayurveda, but essential parts of daily life! A soothing touch nourishes the emotions and spirit, while physically encouraging healthy circulation and the release of toxins.

Herbs

Herbs are an important part of Ayurveda, used in everything from cooking, tea, and medicine, to aromatherapy. Examples of Ayurvedic herbs include Triphala, Ashwaganda, and Gotu Kola.

Finding Balance in Everyday Life

Holistic health is available to everyone! Integrating yoga and Ayurveda into your everyday life can result in peace and well-being in your mind, body, and spirit.

Be sure to talk with your doctor if you are considering Ayurveda for a health condition. Ayurvedic practices should complement conventional care, not replace it. Consult a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner before treating yourself with Ayurvedic techniques. For more information, be sure to check out the iSport guides, How to Determine Your Dosha.